Column: Wheat a metaphor for resurrection for both John and Paul

by Father Mike Stubbs

We sometimes accuse politicians of not giving a straight answer to a simple question.

Instead, they will beat around the bush — delivering the speech which clearly enunciates their positions on a variety of issues but avoiding the one at hand.

We might suspect Jesus of taking a similar approach in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 12:20-33. When told that some visiting Greeks would like to see him, he launches into a long discourse about his impending death and about the benefits it will bring. That discourse includes the image of the seed “dying” in order to produce new life: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Do these words have any connection to the desire of the Greeks to see Jesus? If so, what is it?

I believe that there is a connection, although it may not have been obvious at the moment. Jesus’ death will bring life, not only to the Jews, but to the Gentiles as well. It will benefit the entire world.

The Greeks did not approach Jesus directly because they were unsure how he would receive them. After all, they were not Jews, but Gentiles. That is why they go through Philip, whom we might note, has a Greek name and so would have appeared sympathetic to the Greeks.

The Greeks in question most likely believed in the One God of Israel. That is why they were visiting Jerusalem to worship at the Passover feast. At the same time, they were not fully initiated into Judaism and did not observe the full law, for example, the dietary regulations. That explains their hesitation in approaching Jesus.

By his discourse, Jesus indicates that, contrary to the Gentiles’ expectations, he would indeed welcome them. They also will eat of the fruit produced by the grain of wheat which falls to the ground and dies. They also will share in eternal life, if they serve him.

It is interesting to compare the Gospel of John’s image of the wheat to Paul’s use of that image in 1 Cor 15:36- 38: “What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be but a bare kernel of wheat, perhaps, or of some other kind; but God gives it a body as he chooses, and to each of the seeds its own body.”

Paul goes on to make his usual complicated argument which we will not go into. Instead, I would like to focus upon the fact of Paul’s use of the image of the wheat as a metaphor for the Resurrection. Did Paul have access to John’s Gospel, or is it a coincidence that both draw upon that image? Since most scholars date John’s Gospel well after Paul’s letters, Paul could not have referred to it in his letters.

On the other hand, it is possible that a saying by Jesus about the grain of wheat was floating around in the oral tradition. John may have incorporated the saying in his Gospel. Similarly, Paul may have referred to that saying in the First Letter to the Corinthians.

In any case, it is interesting that the apostle to the Gentiles would have drawn upon the same image that John’s Gospel uses in Jesus’ response to the Gentiles to see him.

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